CommunityFDL Main Blog

DEA Secretly Tracked Billions of Americans’ Calls a Decade Before 9/11

While the Snowden-NSA revelations continue to shock Americans on a daily basis, and illustrate how intrusive the government is in our lives, and how casually it violates our Fourth Amendment right against unwarranted searches, it just got worse.

It turns out the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) was spying on Americans, gathering metadata on our phone calls, almost a decade before 9/11, and right up to 2013. With help from the U.S. military.

Decades of Metadata Spying

In an exclusive report, USA Today learned the U.S. government started keeping secret records of Americans’ international telephone calls nearly a decade before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, harvesting billions of calls in a program that provided a blueprint for the far broader National Security Agency surveillance that followed. The DEA spying only stopped, supposedly, in 2013, no longer needed due to the NSA.

For more than two decades, the Justice Department and the DEA amassed databases of virtually all telephone calls from the U.S. to as many as 116 countries “linked to drug trafficking.” The State Department officially says there are 195 countries out there, so the DEA was monitoring most of them. The Justice Department revealed in January that the DEA had collected data about calls to “designated foreign countries.” But the comprehensive scale of the operation has not been disclosed until now.

Federal investigators claim they used the call records — metadata — to track drug cartels’ distribution networks. They say they also used the records to help rule out foreign ties to the bombing in 1995 of a federal building in Oklahoma City and to identify U.S. suspects in other investigations.

Still believing metadata is not intrusive? Read this.

Telecoms Roll Over

America’s telecommunications and phone companies apparently turned over their records voluntarily and without asking for warrants. Officials said a few telephone companies were reluctant to provide so much information, but none ever challenged the issue in court. Those that hesitated received letters from the Justice Department urging them to comply.

The data collection was “one of the most important and effective Federal drug law enforcement initiatives,” the Justice Department said in a 1998 letter to Sprint. The previously undisclosed letter noted the operation had “been approved at the highest levels of Federal law enforcement authority,” including then-Attorney General Janet Reno and her deputy and later Attorney General during the NSA-spying era, Eric Holder.

The data collection began in 1992 during the administration of George H.W. Bush, nine years before his son, George W., authorized the NSA to gather its own logs of Americans’ phone calls in 2001. The program was re-approved by top Justice Department officials in the Clinton and Obama administrations. There was no oversight or court approval.

U.S. Military Involvement

The DEA program also employed U.S. military assets. When the volume of data threatened to overwhelm DEA, the military responded with a pair of supercomputers and intelligence analysts who had experience tracking the communication patterns of Soviet military units. The supercomputers were installed in DEA headquarters in Arlington, Virginia.

To keep the whole program secret and thus outside of any legal challenge, the DEA did not to use the information as evidence in criminal prosecutions per se. Instead, its Special Operations Division passed the data to field agents as tips, a process approved by Justice Department lawyers.

That process is know as “parallel construction,” and has a sordid history. Read this.

The Template

They just did it. The template for the NSA’s later spying on America was set long before 9/11. All the elements were already in place: no-questions-asked cooperation from the telcoms, no warrants or oversight, near-perfect secrecy, near-perfect pointless, dragnet security on American citizens in their homes. Multiple administrations, and multiple corporate executives of publicly-traded companies, kept silent.

One notes that despite all this spying, drugs are still quite available in the U.S. and while it is nice that there was no foreign connection to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the DEA spying did miss a whopper of a terror attack some years later. At least 9/11 was not drug-related.

And for those criminal defense attorneys who might want to reopen some old cases and challenge guilty verdicts based on the unconstitutionality of these searches, sorry. The DEA has destroyed the databases.

BONUS: The DEA is still mass-targeting Americans, only now via large-scale subpoenas.

Crossposted at

Previous post

Ukraine's Formal Security Strategy Now Includes NATO Membership

Next post

US Alone Once Again at Americas Summit

Peter Van Buren

Peter Van Buren

Peter Van Buren has served with the Foreign Service for over 23 years. He received a Meritorious Honor Award for assistance to Americans following the Hanshin earthquake in Kobe, a Superior Honor Award for helping an American rape victim in Japan, and another award for work in the tsunami relief efforts in Thailand. Previous assignments include Taiwan, Japan, Korea, the UK and Hong Kong. He volunteered for Iraq service and was assigned to ePRT duty 2009-10. His tour extended past the withdrawal of the last combat troops.

Van Buren worked extensively with the military while overseeing evacuation planning in Japan and Korea. This experience included multiple field exercises, plus civil-military work in Seoul, Tokyo, Hawaii, and Sydney with allies from the UK, Australia, and elsewhere. The Marine Corps selected Van Buren to travel to Camp Lejeune in 2006 to participate in a field exercise that included simulated Iraqi conditions. Van Buren spent a year on the Hill in the Department of State’s Congressional Liaison Office.

Van Buren speaks Japanese, Chinese Mandarin, and some Korean (the book’s all in English, don’t worry). Born in New York City, he lives in Virginia with his spouse, two daughters, and a docile Rottweiler.

Though this is his first book, Peter’s commentary has been featured on TomDispatch, Salon, Huffington Post, The Nation, American Conservative Magazine, Mother Jones, Michael, Le Monde, Daily Kos, Middle East Online, Guernica and others.